1960: Phineas Tshitaundzi, the panga man

On this date in 1960, South Africa conducted a mass execution of 15 miscellaneous criminals (14 black, one white) in Pretoria Prison.

The headline attraction was one of the 14 blacks: Phineas Tshitaundzi, the “panga man” or any number of related headline-worthy nicknames — the panga slasher, the panga maniac. (“Panga man” can also just be any old fellow with a panga, like an agricultural worker.)

A panga is a machete, and Phineas Tshitaundzi wielded this intimidating instrument during a 1950s spree terrorizing white lovers’ lanes around Johannesburg. “He would assault the men and rape the women — to whom, it was said, he then gave bus fare home,” wrote Jean and John Comaroff in Law and Disorder in the Postcolony.* “There could hardly have been a more intense figuration of the dark, erotically charged menace that stalked the cities in the white imagination.”

The assaults were non-fatal — panga man was the only one of the 14 blacks hanged this day not on the hook for murder — but the many survivors whose affairs were on the illicit side had injuries to cope with beyond those inflicted by the blade.

Tshitaundzi was finally caught as a result of fencing some of the proceeds of his crimes, whereupon it transpired that the terrifying perpetrator had been so difficult to capture because he’d been working as a mild-mannered 40-year-old “tea boy” at police headquarters itself, a position that allowed him to stay wise to various attempts to ensnare him.

The terrible “panga man” was installed in a kitschy exhibit in the police museum opened by his employes turned captors.

* The full chapter from this anthology can be read in pdf form here.